Edwards, facing a daunting 141-point deficit heading into Sunday's Ford 400, qualified fourth, trailing only first-time pole winner David Reutimann, rookie Scott Speed and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth. Johnson, who needs only to finish 36th or better on Sunday to wrap up his third straight Cup title, will start a disappointing 30th.
It's only the seventh time in 36 races this season that Johnson has started 20th or lower. The good news for Johnson is his worst finish in any of those races was 33rd in the August race at Bristol.
Edwards, who knows his chances of winning the title mainly hinge on Johnson having a parts failure or crashing, shrugged off the qualifying spread.
"We just race as hard as we can," Edwards said. "No matter what happens to Jimmie, we have to run very well to have a chance to win this championship."
The qualifying discrepancy does give Edwards one other edge, since pit selection is based on qualifying.
"Pit selection will be big -- not as big as other places, though, because you can pass so easily here," Edwards said. "But I'll take whatever I can get. This will make it a little easier to sleep tonight and have a little confidence going into the race."
Before qualifying, Johnson was asked what he needs to do this weekend.
"We've got to finish 400 miles," Johnson said. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm ready to get on track.
"It's been a busy week and [I'm] just really eager to get in the car and get into what I do and what this team's about and what we like to do, which is drive that car and make it fast."
Even after his disappointing lap in qualifying, Johnson didn't appear too concerned.
"Oh well, we'll roll with it," Johnson said. "I had some trouble coming to the green [flag] and lost some time, so it's probably not the qualifying effort that we wanted.
"But we had a great practice and have a great car and we'll be just fine. We'll just kind of run from there and see what we get."
The previous best start for Reutimann in 63 Cup races for Michael Waltrip Racing was second this summer at Bristol.
"It feels great," said Reutimann, whose fast lap was 171.636 mph. "It gives us a good starting position, so I'm pretty excited about that.
"Our team is a second-year organization and, last year, we were just worried about getting in races, much less winning a pole. Our team has come a very long way. Our main jump to getting into the situation we're in now was the 600 series cars that we're in now. The cars are much, much lighter, just a better car. Almost right away when we started building those cars. ... we started running better."
Speed, making only his fourth Cup start, swapped cars with Red Bull teammate Brian Vickers this week, assuring Speed of making the race in the top-35 No. 83 Toyota. The former Formula One driver didn't need the help.
"We didn't exactly get a lot of laps in practice," Speed said. "I think that helped us. We didn't have enough time to mess it up.
"I just drove it in the corner and it stuck. No magic."
Vickers, driving the team's No. 84, which needed to qualify on speed, had no problem, either. He put the car into the field in 20th.
Kenseth is the defending race champion.
Tony Stewart, making his final start for Joe Gibbs Racing before moving to his own Stewart-Haas Racing team, qualified 13th.